Long before Tiger Woods, Jim Thorpe, Calvin Peete, and Lee Elder, there were other African-American golfers who paved the way for them to play. Among them was Theodore “Ted” Rhodes, who could have been one of the top golfers during the Sam Snead/Ben Hogan/Byron Nelson era…if only he had been allowed to play.
Rhodes was born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1913 and started caddying as a teenager at Belle Meade Country Club. Although he was welcome to work there, he was not officially allowed to play, but Rhodes did manage to make his way onto the course on many occasions. He and some other caddies practiced at a park outside of town. Rhodes began his professional career by playing in tournaments that either did not have color restrictions, or in tournaments held by the United Golfers Association, an organization run by black golfers. In contrast to the PGA of America at the time, the UGA did not discriminate and welcomed golfers of all colors to compete.
Rhodes got his first big competitive break when he competed in the 1946 Tam O’Shanter tournament, a non-PGA event open to all golfers. Rhodes finished 43rd. Two years later, he played in the US Open at Riviera Country Club in California, and created quite a buzz when his opening round of 70 placed him just three strokes out of the lead, behind Hogan and Lloyd Mangrum. He eventually faded, finishing 51st.
Champion boxer Joe Louis became friends with Rhodes during this time and sponsored him. Rhodes played whenever and wherever he could. He won over 150 tournaments overall, including five UGA national championships. Rhodes and others were instrumental in getting the PGA to drop its Caucasians-only clause in 1961, but by this time he had essentially retired from competitive golf.
After his death in 1969, Cumberland Golf Course in Nashville was re-named Ted Rhodes Golf Course, a name that remains to this day.